Paris was the last stop of this assignment.
It was not part of the original reporting itinerary, but a few weeks before I was set to leave for Dubai, we got a tip to check out a "Parisian Village" in a province just outside Metro Manila.
What we founds was more of a street than a village, our own version of a Champs-Élysées. But instead of fashion boutiques and corporate offices, this rue was lined with two-story modern stylish homes made of brick and concrete with jeeps and tricycles parked outside.
These homes were built from Euros funneled in by Filipinos working in Paris as domestic workers.
What we found was another story that had to be told.
A voice, a face for domestic workers
It took Zita Cabais more than a month to get to Paris.
She rode a plane, took a train, a taxi and walked across more than 3 different countries to escape border control.
"I was determined to make it. I had borrowed money to pay the "agency" and was in too much debt to go back to the Philippines," said Zita.
Working as a domestic worker in Paris, her employer took her passport, withheld her salary and abused her. With the help of labor union Syndicat des Salariés du Particulier Employeur or CFDT-IDF, Zita filed a case against her employer and won.
Now, as secretary general of the CFDT-IDF, Zita is the voice and the face of domestic workers in Paris working for the recognition and professionalization of domestic work.
There are an estimated 1.4 million domestic workers in France, with about 35-40% at the capital region (IDF). Majority of them are migrant women.
The Commission of Filipino Overseas estimates that as of 2012, there are 50,000 Filipinos living in France, more than half are undocumented migrant workers.
"I came to Paris 34 years ago and didn't know a word of French," began Luz Manalo.
It was early evening on a cold rainy spring day and Manang Luz – as she is so called – was keeping us warm with stories of her many misadventures.
Her friends, a combination of city veterans and newcomers, were also gathered around her. They had heard these stories many times before but never turned away a chance to hear them again.
"Once, my madame told me to call for her husband," Luz continued. "So I told him, 'Cheri, Cheri, madame is calling you."
They both laughed and explained that "cheri" means "darling" in French.
"I thought it was his name because that's what I heard madame call him all the time."
"Hay...très difficile to be a femme de ménage!" (Hay…so difficult to be a housemaid!)
Toi et moi dans Paris (You and me in Paris)
"What's your student number?" Bob* asked, invoking the customary greeting among University of the Philippines (UP) graduates.
I replied, automatically reciting the numbers that remain etched in my memory even after more than 20 years.
His wife, Lissa, probably used to this kind of greeting-cum-code exchange said, "Alam nyo, nang nililigawan nya ako, ayoko sa kanya. Kasi nga alam ko mayayabang yung mga tiga-UP." (You know, when he was courting me, I didn't like him because UP graduates are known to be arrogant.)
Bob and I caught each other's eye and grinned, knowing that there was more than a half-truth to Lissa's statement.
Bob was a Statistics graduate who met Lissa at work. The first time he saw her, he told himself she was going to be his wife someday.
That was more than 5 years ago and they had checked off most to-do's on their list since then: career, car, and a home on loan. On certain occasions – like when Bob had a business trip – they traveled the world. They were working on getting pregnant, but for the moment, were enjoying trying.
They took me around the Victor Hugo neighborhood where Filipino stores and a remittance center were located and we talked about home.
Ever the numbers guy, Bob recounted how he and Lissa studied the probabilities and decided that the better decision would be to leave the Philippines and try their luck in Paris as domestic workers and garde d'enfants or nannies.
I spent an entire evening with them and if it weren't for the metro we both had to catch, we would have stayed and talked like old friends do.
During a momentary silence, Bob caught my eye again and addressed the question that was not asked but had to be answered.
Bob and Lissa had just about everything a young couple could want. The only thing they didn't have was security; not for them but for Bob's aging parents and Lissa's younger siblings.
Bob had already calculated how long it would take them to pay off their home loan and help send Lissa's siblings through school if they could continue getting jobs and eventually get a work permit.
"When I'm on the metro and it passes by offices with people working inside, I think to myself, 'I used to hold a ballpen and sit in front of a computer, too. Now I hold cleaning products and babysit a small French boy.'
What keeps me – us – going is knowing we won't be like this forever. That, plus we have family to think of back home. Going abroad is never about yourself."
*Names have been changed.
"Please. I hope you understand. I only want to protect my daughter," Dindo pleaded.
Dindo and Alishya waited 13 years before getting their daughter, Dottie, back. They left her in the Philippines when she was 11-months old to hide under the radar to work in France. It took $10,000 and a creative flight plan – to put it nicely – to facilitate Dottie's entry to France.
They were still getting to know their daughter who until over a year ago was a stranger to them.
Dindo agreed to everything – the interview and photos – but asked that Dottie's face not be shown.
"It's ok. But please let us take your family picture. Maybe you don't have one yet?" I said, assuring them that we would give them the photo and would find a way to blur their image for publication.
There was silence and slowly it dawned on them.
Dindo scratched his head and a grin replaced his furrowed brow. Alishya put her hand on her chest. Dottie giggled softly and Rosario, the younger of the couple's two daughters happily plopped onto the sofa bed beside her big sister.
"Une, deux, trois," counted Olivier, our photographer and they all smiled into the camera for their first family picture.
Like mother, like daughter
Susan should have been overjoyed when her daughter, M, told her she wanted to join her in Paris, but she wasn't. Susan knew it would mean that her daughter would, like her, also be working as a maid.
"Ayoko talaga sya papuntahin dito. Katulong na nga ako, katulong pa yung anak ko. Para saan ko pa sya pina-aral?" (I really did not want her to come here. I'm already a maid. Does my daughter have to be a maid too? After I put her through school and everything…)
But her daughter did not finish school and her employment opportunities for her husband and children were limited.
"Pumayag na din ako kasi baka naisip ko na baka maghirap sya tapos ako ang sisihin nya."
(I finally gave in to her because she might blame me if she and her family become impoverished.)
And so the circle of life continues, with the daughter growing up to be just like her mother.
The boys she left behind
I was the stranger who met her family in the Philippines and called her on Viber to ask if we could meet.
She was the former school teacher who had left everything behind – her 17 years of teaching, her husband and her son – to move to Paris.
I was out of breath by the time I had climbed up the seven flights of stairs to reach Mila's* small room. Hers was a "service room" usually reserved by madames for their femme de ménage or housemaid.
She had never met me before, but she greeted me with a wide smile and – as Filipino custom dictates – with food and profuse apologies about her modest accommodations.
"I have something for you," I told her, handing her the pictures.
"My boys!" she gasped, looking through the photos of her son and husband.
She was beside herself then, struggling with both glee and wistfulness, engulfing me in a tight embrace and just as quickly letting go to show Nilo, her husband and Jake, her son, their pictures via Skype.
"Look what Ms Ana brought me! Son, you're playing basketball. You're so big already and so handsome!"
Mila grabbed me again in a tight hug, but held on this time, saying in a whimper, "I want to go home."
I was no stranger. I was the person who had last seen her husband and son.
Read more about Mila and her family in Part 2 of photoblog entitled "Strength of their Sacrifice."
*Names have been changed.
Paris was the last stop of this assignment.